Television Cameras and Executions

SHOULD TV cameras have a place in the gas chamber? That question, before a court in California, has stirred debate around the country, as today's report by Monitor correspondent Scott Armstrong details. Some opponents of the death penalty argue that televised executions would show the public just how ugly the ultimate sanction is. Others counter that the spectacle would just as likely play to the public's lurid interest in violence, transporting American society back to the days when public hangings were festive events.

Would the large majority of Americans who favor executions be turned against the practice simply by observing it, and recognizing, perhaps, that the procedure is degrading or even painful? That proposition is iffy, at best.

Would televised executions provide a needed test for the theory that capital punishment - usually administered with relatively little public fanfare - deters crime? But could a supposed gain in our understanding of death-penalty dynamics justify turning the grim business of state-sanctioned killing into a public spectacle?

The warden at San Quentin prison, where California's first execution since 1967 would be carried out, worries that TV cameras, to most Americans the purveyors of entertainment, would destroy the ``dignity'' of the event. But the country's rush back to the death penalty, with its potential for irreversible mistakes and its flat denial of any potential for rehabilitation, is itself a retreat from human dignity.

Certainly the inhabitants of death row should be allowed a modicum of privacy and respect, and many of them, reportedly, don't like the idea of their executions reaching people's living rooms, where even children could tune in.

San Francisco's public station KQED, which has pressed the issue in the courts, says its interest is to be a ``neutral'' witness at an important exercise of public authority. There'd be nothing neutral, however, about the impact of televised executions.

It shouldn't take the horror of seeing a condemned man gassed to bring Americans to the recognition that the death penalty is an anomoly in a society that prides itself on civilized values.

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